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New survey will gauge public opinion on euthanasia

South Koreans debate right to 'die with dignity'

Many South Koreans say they should be allowed to 'die with dignity' Many South Koreans say they should be allowed to 'die with dignity'
  • Stephen Hong, Seoul
  • Korea
  • September 19, 2012
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When doctors removed a respirator from a 76-year-old woman known only as Kim , it sparked a national debate in South Korea about choosing to die, or not, and who can make that choice.

The doctors' decision led to a landmark Supreme Court case in 2009, the first time it had been called to rule on whether to maintain life support for a patient in a vegetative state, as Kim was at the time, although doctors at the Protestant Severance Hospital in Seoul continued to feed their patient. The court order only referred to life support for the respirator, which doctors had originally refused to turn off.

Miraculously, Kim lasted 202 more days and died in January 2010.

Amid the debate that followed South Korea’s first case of legal euthanasia, the National Bioethics Committee (NBC) in Seoul said it has started collecting views from the general public, in a bid to inform policy on the issue and prevent a repeat of the protracted legal dispute over Kim.

Her family, which had called the artificial extension of the life of her brain-dead body “painful and meaningless," fought the hospital through the court system.

Kim Myung-hee, a senior researcher at the Korea National Institute for Bioethics Policy, which backs the NBC, said that although it has no power to force parliament to alter laws governing euthanasia, “it would encourage lawmakers to legislate the end of meaningless treatment.”

Following public consultations, the presidential bioethics committee is set to hold a policy discussion on this controversial issue in November.

Given the findings of other recent surveys on the issue, the NBC is expected to report overwhelming support among the general public for the right to "die with dignity."

A survey last year by the Ministry of Health and Welfare found that more than 72 percent of South Koreans favored ending "meaningless" life-support treatment for a terminally ill patient, namely respirators and artificially resuscitating hearts and lungs.

It is an issue that affects a growing number of people as South Korea’s population grows and gets older. A survey in 2009 found that nearly 95,000 terminally ill patients were on life support.

Following consultations with religious, medical, legal and civic groups in 2009 and 2010, the health ministry agreed that the artificial life support of a patient could be halted at the written request of a patient.

In practice, however, this usually proves impractical, as was the case with Kim when her family assumed decision-making responsibility.

So far, there are no clear guidelines or rules on whether family members can decide to effectively end the life of a relative. There is only the Kim precedent when family members argued she had previously said she would not want to be kept alive in such circumstances.

In a country of 50 million people thought to be nearly one-third Christian, the Church has a great deal of sway on the issue.

Jesuit Father Dominic Woo Jae-myung, a professor of Theology at Jesuit-run Sogang University, says it is the question of another person making the decision for a person’s death that poses the main problem.

“A human’s right to self-decision about death cannot be judged – or replaced – by others,” he said, deferring to the doctrine of the Catholic Church.

Citing a Vatican document, Fr. Woo, a former member of the NBC, added that the Church is in favor of “ending meaningless artificial respiration under a patient’s self-decision.”

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